Is Personal Honor Dead?

“Ethics, honor, accountability, integrity, honesty, and character are dead in American society.” Now there’s a wild statement. Could you, however, look around and find examples of behavior that support the statement? How about the following:

*Many parents today enable and indulge their kids by keeping them on a tight cyber-leash. When kids get in trouble, parents “bail them out.” Are those kids learning accountability?

*What do you think about the major league baseball scandal of stealing signs? Honest? Playing fair? How about the college basketball scandal where agents offered parents bribes so their kid would choose a particular school? Honorable?

*What about forgiveness of student loans? Some argue that doing so goes against the American work ethic that expects one to compete, work hard, achieve, overcome obstacles, learn from failures, and adapt to an ever-changing environment. Is college loan forgiveness consistent with that work ethic? Why not tie forgiveness to service work completed?

*How about Presidential pardons of felons who contribute to the re-election campaign of the pardoner? Ethical? Honorable?

*How many college admissions officers would agree with this statement? “We know some kids in our entering freshman class are unprepared for college-level work and will likely flunk out in their first year. But we accepted them because we need all the tuition money we can get.” Honest? Ethical?

*Have you ever heard about someone spreading lies on social media about an ex? How about posting compromising pictures to get back at someone? Social values?

*Then there are those high-profile cases of sexual abuse of young people by college employees. The Nasser case at Michigan State involving gymnasts, and the Sandusky case at Penn State involving young boys – both show shameless attempts by high-ranking university officials to cover up the misdeeds. Ethics, honor, accountability, integrity, honesty, and character all seem to have been discarded by those officials in both these cases.

*I saw a news report of a woman protesting social distancing restrictions. She said, ” I would rather die than live like this.” Putting aside the personal pity parade going on, let’s note that the translation of this comment is, “I would rather live, even if it means infecting others.” That, my friends, is what we call narcissism, and that character trait is incompatible with having a social conscience. Is this the new America, one devoid of empathy for our neighbor?

*How many physicians in America work for a medical conglomerate? How many are told how much time they get to spend with a patient, and how many patients they are expected to see daily? Is it ethical to force physicians to work within the confines of the “bottom line,” even if that potentially compromises the physician’s efforts to be a “healer”?

“Wait a minute,” you protest. “Sure, there’s a lot of unethical stuff going on out there. But that’s always been true. For every item on your list, I could find several examples of people doing great things, helping others, and showing they really care.”

I agree. The point I wanted to make is that examples of dishonorable behavior in American society are not hard to find, and that fact has major significance for coping actions. If you want to cope effectively with challenges in your life, you need a solid foundation of personal standards, values, morality, and ethics to guide you. Without that foundation, you will drift into denial and avoidance, actions incompatible with effective coping. With so much dishonorable behavior in society, it is easy to be influenced by it, which can make establishing a moral foundation more difficult, and compromise your coping efforts.

With that danger in mind, let’s ask a simple question: “What can I do to decrease my risk of getting snared in these ethical lapses?” Think back to our dishonorable actions above. Imagine that you are the President of the University where abuse accusations have been made; that you are a player on a team with some teammates cheating; that you are protesting stay-at-home orders to protect the populace from sickness; that you are a physician who wants to heal, not just meet quotas; that you work in an admissions office that has ignored your “Do Not Accept” recommendation.

In each case, assuming you have moral standards, you are being asked to act in a way that is inconsistent with those values. Will you be guided by your standards, or by the “bottom line”? If the latter, you may suffer legal consequences, rejection, or shame by others. That’s bad enough, but failing to coordinate your actions with your values can also damage your personality, disrupt your emotional stability, and compromise your identity. You will be at risk for serious psychological difficulties, such as anxiety, helplessness, and depression.

Behaving in ways that go against your morality is definitely hazardous to your psychological well-being. So, what can you do to make it easier to choose to be guided by your ethics, character, and integrity? Here are a few suggestions:

*Give up the search for happiness.

*Examine what you value and accept those things as important to you.

*Harmonize your actions with your values. Let something like happiness emerge as satisfaction from those actions.

*Cultivate humility by taking yourself out of the equation now and then.

*Allow a focus on empathy for others to take priority over a focus on “me.”

*Listen to others’ stories before you tell them your story.

*Your legacy is how you make others feel each day. Actualize yourself by establishing positive daily legacies. Engage in actions that make others feel worthwhile.

I don’t mean to suggest that instead of acting as ordered by a superior, acting in accordance with personal values is easy to do and without risk. In many of the examples we gave, for instance, the risk would be getting fired! Still, the fact remains that being untrue to your values – untrue to the person you perceive yourself to be – also carries great psychological risk.

Only you can decide which path to take. Just remember, if your actions bring you emotional distress – you feel anxious, frustrated, helpless, “burned out” – the odds are that you chose the wrong path. Take corrective action, seek help, and consider the suggestions above.

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